I’ve long wondered how to rightly think of the imprecatory psalms. This term imprecatory, in case you’re unfamiliar, is a late middle English word that means to speak evil towards someone. And a Psalm is a sacred song or prayer. So then, imprecatory psalms are sacred songs or prayers speaking evil (or harm) towards someone. What the heck? That’s actually in the bible? Yeah, and there’s a lot of them. For example, Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139 just to name a few.
Please Help Us Brother Bonhoeffer!
Bonhoeffer said “the Psalter is the great schoolbook of prayer”, to which I couldn’t agree more. So for those of us that have tried praying through the psalms (which I highly recommend), the imprecatory psalms may have caused us a bit of trouble. I mean, how do I deal with praying for god to slay my enemies with a sword? That he destroy them? Bring them to ruin? Bonhoeffer, please help us out here broseph! “okay, my man” (not a real quote).
“A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the one who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgement, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. (Life Together, p.45). (a real quote!)
How Then Shall We Pray?
Therein lies the secret to rightly understanding and reading and praying the imprecatory psalms. When David is writing these, yes he really feels the emotions and is struggling with injustice in the world, but Acts 2 calls David a prophet and refers to the speaker of the Psalms as the Holy Spirit (God, fyi). So we know the psalms are the prayers of more than David.
So next time you read these difficult passages, keep this in mind, and hopefully it will radically change the way you see the text.
- Jesus is praying
- You’re the wicked enemy causing all the injustice in the world
You probably didn’t see #2 coming. That’s fine, I didn’t either. But it’s true. Let us never forget that we who look to Christ to “save” us needed that “saving” because by nature we are his enemies. And well.. that’s the losing team. We were doomed. Doomed to what? The wrath that Jesus is praying for in these psalms, bro.
When you read the imprecatory psalms, please let them remind you, you are not just saved by God, but FROM God, and amazingly, to God.
Ephesians 2. Read it again. The end.